“I live every day in an Indiana Jones movie,” the broad-smiling local tells me.
I mirror his grin, “Oh, I hope there aren’t any booby traps!”
“No, but you’ll probably walk into a few spiders’ webs!”
As the shuttle bus rounds the corner, a scene reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Arc springs into view. Lush Aleppo pine trees and holm oaks cover every inch of the landscape. Suddenly, a burst of dazzling blue jumps out and holds my awe-struck gaze. I’m staring at a breathtaking oceanographic phenomenon, one that would bewitch even Indiana Jones.
Mljet National Park
I’m in Mljet National Park, the oldest marine protected area in the Adriatic. It’s a verdant Croatian island spanning 37 kilometres, one third of which is under national park jurisdiction. It’s home to more than 200 protected species, both underwater and on land.
“We have 120 different varieties of birds on Mljet island,” the enthusiastic ranger at the park office tells me at the one-road town of Polače. She lifts her finger into the air, “Can you hear them?” We stand listening to the virtuoso of nature. “They make a great orchestra, don’t they?”
The honey buzzard, Mediterranean shag, audouin’s gull, which is the most endangered gull in the Adriatic, and the peregrine falcon are among the bird species here on Mljet but I’m not sure which are featuring in this morning’s musical performance.
Mljet’s Global Phenomenon
The main draw of Mljet National Park, however, is its stunning sea lakes which host the Mediterranean’s only coral reef. The Great Lake (Veliko Jezero) is connected to the sea via the Soline Channel, which, depending on changes between high and low tide, alters direction every six hours. It’s this phenomenon which has created the 650 sqm cushion coral reef at the lake’s entrance.
Connected to the Great Lake via a tiny channel is Malo Jezero or the Little Lake. It has the largest population of the endangered Mediterranean fan mussels, colossal shell fish that can reach sizes of 1.2 metres.
But I’m heading to Malo Jezero for another reason.
Check out: Croatia’s Best Islands 2021
In Hot Water
“I’d recommend swimming in the Little Lake,” the national park ranger tells me, “it’s already 25 degrees.” Now that is music to my ears. “It’s always several degrees warmer than the coastal sea which is great, but when land temperatures reach 40 degrees, the Little Lake becomes as hot as a bath!”
I walk the short distance to the Great Lake where the scenery reminds me of Australia with its trees and scrubland sitting beneath a brilliant blue sky. Over 85 percent of Mljet National Park is covered by forest, a number which is expanding year by year with tree plantations. Through the greenery, I audibly gasp as I reach the lake. It’s turquoise and amethyst, and as clear as glass.
Despite being mid-June, there isn’t another soul in sight due to worldwide travel restrictions. The serenity is heaven but I’m always uneasy swimming solo; I prefer it if water beasts have other humans to nibble on. Nevertheless, I pop my swimming shoes on and slide into the water. It’s beautifully warm and I swim to the sound of cracking Aleppo pine cones expanding in the heat. Something black moves stealthily along the bottom of the lake and my relaxation turns into full-blown panic. I leap out, my bravery vanishing in a second.
I realise I had just gone into meltdown over my own shadow. Still, I opt for the far safer option of Mljet National Park’s solar-powered catamaran. The noiseless vessel glides across the lake to St Mary’s island where a 12-century Benedictine monastery and a pricy restaurant sit. Monks lived and tended the monastery until 1809, when they left during Napoleon’s eight-year rule in Croatia. It’s one of many historical features on Mljet island, which includes a Roman emperor’s palace and ruins in Polače.
I take the marked hiking trails around both lakes, the paths and rarely used roads make a great way of exploring Mljet National Park on foot. I stop for a swim when I feel brave enough in stunning shallow spots. The Great Lake has a depth of 47 metres and hasn’t been fully researched by scientists and I decide I won’t offer my exploration services.
I hike up to Mt Montokuc, which at 256 metres has spectacular panoramic views across the lakes to the open sea. At the peak is a watchtower where rangers keep vigil for fires when mid-summer temperatures cause concern. Fire breaks in the replanted trees help somewhat as does the total prohibition against smoking anywhere in the park.
The wetlands (blatina) near Kozarica pique my interest and I ask to hire an electric bike. “You won’t make it,” the bike rental man in Polače tells me. “It’s too hilly and the battery will die. I tried it once and had to call a taxi to pick me up. Why don’t you take a normal bike?”
“Because it’s too hilly and my battery will die!” I reply. So I walk.
For hiking trails on nearby Hvar island, read this.
I come across a pond with dozens of singing frogs, incredible hilltop views, little villages and Blatska Blatina, a wetland surrounded by hilly ridges. Summer means the water is low but I still see families of birds swimming and goats milling about nearby. “We’re working with the locals who farm near the wetlands to find ways to use different fertilisers,” the park ranger told me when I first arrived in Mljet. “Something that will reduce the sediment build-up beneath the wetlands.”
As I start the walk back to Polače, I regret my hiking idea as the searing sun beats down. It’s 30 degrees and I decide to hitch. Before I’ve even put my thumb out, a car stops and offers me a ride, asking why I didn’t hire a bike. “I tried,” I say behind my mask.
Mljet is tough to get around beyond the lakes because there is just one public bus at 4.30am! There’s also one shuttle bus per day linking two ferry ports, Pomena and Polače which are 6km apart. The brilliant white sand beach of Blace at the very south of the island will have to wait till next time when boat trips are back on the cards. Although I’m sure Indiana Jones would have had no trouble hiking/swimming the 37 km to reach it if he’d ever put Mljet, Croatia on his bucket list.
Fast Facts about Mljet, Croatia
- You need to pay an entrance fee of 125 kuna (£14) which is valid for your whole stay on Mljet. It includes a ride across the Great Lake on the catamaran.
- There are national park offices in Polače and Pristanište.
- The two main towns in the national park are Polače and Pomena and they both have a range of accommodation options and restaurants. There is one basic shop in each but no pharmacy (there’s one 25 km away in Babino Polja).
- Ladies, bring tampons with you as they are scarce on the island.
- Krilo Catamaran sails to Mljet from Dubrovnik or Split daily but check times. In peak summer periods, Jadrolina also operates services. Ferry services arrive in either Polače, Pomena or Sobra.
- A shuttle bus runs between Polače and Pomena to coincide with the ferry times for 40 kuna (£4).
- If you stay elsewhere on Mljet island, expect to pay a hefty taxi fare to get you from the ferry ports or up to the national park.
- Check this site for transport options but be aware that information may not have been updated since pre-covid times.
- Also check out the Mljet tourist board.
- If you want a taxi service, you can contact the English-speaking driver who runs the shuttle bus service on +35398505654 or Viber +38598580835 (not many people use Whatsapp in Croatia).
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